Einstein on Surveying—The Seasoned Surveyor's Lament

A 748Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Update: See author’s note in References

Albert Einstein wrote at the age of seventeen, "A happy man is too satisfied with the present to think too much about the future." Considering the present state of the land boundary survey profession, please accept me as a poor surrogate for Einstein’s unhappy man.

After graduating with a Land Surveying degree in 1974, I worked for BLM performing original township surveys and subdivisions in Alaska. This included preparing original field notes. Since then I have accumulated another 38 years in the survey profession with 28 of that exclusively in boundary surveys, much of it involving Indian reservations.

I have a well-founded insight on topo calls. While performing original Township Surveys in Alaska we measured all of our topo calls that were within 3 chains (198′) of a sectional corner, and all other topo calls were scaled from 1:63,000 USGS Quadrangle maps (1"=1 Mile).

Projecting this tradition backward, it is my theory that GLO surveyors in the 1880s and 1890s scaled topo calls from USGS Reconnaissance Series maps. These were developed from plane table surveys and had great inaccuracies. The Reconnaissance Series maps are now difficult to find because they used odd scales, like 1:48000, different names and often did not use the 15′ layouts. However, this theory does explain the otherwise illogical topo calls from that period.

In 1973, during my college years I attended a survey conference in Helena Montana and we students were introduced to one Ira Tillotson. Ira was 54 then, and in his presentation, and on page 27 of his book Legal Principles of Property Boundary Location, he stated, "GLO Field Notes are not what the surveyor did. They are not even what he said he did. GLO Field Notes are what the surveyor was told to say." My memory is that Ira attributed this statement to William Roy Bandy, an early G.L.O. Cadastral Engineer. However, anyone who has authored BLM field notes and submitted them to their Review Section knows the truth of that statement.

To follow topo calls or to proportion using typical Field Notes, in a distorted section, is, as Einstein coined the phrase, "to have your brain amputated"1.

Other misunderstandings that I have noted through the years about BLM are:
1. The IBLA system is not a part of the U.S. judicial system. It is part of the Department of Administration, specifically the Department of the Interior. These administrative reviews usually uphold the actions of that department.
2. All Federal agencies are fiduciary agents for the Indian Tribes. All decisions by them must be in favor of the tribes. In the 2005 PowerPoint presentation prepared by Bob Ader for BLM’s Cadastral Survey Program, we read this, "Overall objective is to build a highly effective fiduciary trust service that provides Cadastral Survey Services…" Such is a contradiction in duties and since BLM can rightly be sued for malfeasance in the first, the second must suffer. The PowerPoint goes on to state: "Create a federal cadastral certification program for Licensed Land Surveyors to perform survey services under the direction and control of BLM." (Warning to licensed land surveyors: Be careful of what you "learn" and do, BLM might get away with these shenanigans, but you and your license probably won’t.)
3. The BLM Cadastral Survey Section is confident that their regretful surveys will never be successfully appealed because all they have to do is claim sovereign immunity for the tribe and no Federal court will touch it. On the flip side, there are a lot of private citizens getting screwed who have no access to a court remedy (but they can go after the contractor’s license).

In the October 2012 issue of The American Surveyor, Landon Blake wrote of a disputed County Surveyor’s stone within IBLA 388. The probable truth of IBLA 388 is that if the county surveyor’s stone had been to the benefit of the tribe, BLM would have used it.

In my career I have often challenged proportioned corners, not because they are in the wrong position, but because the original corner was not lost in the first place. It is a different matter entirely to challenge an old corner because it was not proportioned correctly, as BLM did in IBLA 388. Many additional judicial concerns come into play in the latter situation.

It is granted in the IBLA 388 case that the original GLO stone was lost and the long enduring replacement County stone was not placed at the proper proportionate position.

It is my opinion that the spirit of court precedence will eventually defend the first replacement monument, and give it the indisputable status of the original corner, even though it was improperly set. Much of the reasoning in Dykes v. Arnold would support this. There is an on-point pair of IBLA cases (IBLA 252, 260; 2008 IBLA Lexis 69,18, Page 7) which took the approach of upholding the first proportioning even though it was incorrect. Again we see BLM accepting one method in IBLA 260 and the opposite in 388, all depending on which most benefited BLM.

For cause, the boundary survey profession is a reflection of the BLM, and I suppose that that is why I am not happy with either. So, please forgive, but consider my views of the present and future:

Continuing Education
Courses are not reviewed for content by RCEP or NCEES, nor are there technical standards in place to review them by. Thus, most of our current courses on boundary surveys are wrong and some are ludicrous2. (Jeff Lucas being excepted.)

Continuing Education is the brain child of Survey Associations; and it is they who have promoted the adoption of this program by the respective states. It is therefore no surprise that the large majority of required CEUs are obtained from conventions courses put on by survey associations. Annual conference attendance is way up, so are profits, but education never gets off the ground. (There is another travesty here as we witness thousands of out-of-work professional surveyors forking over $3,000 to $5,000 during each of the last five years to acquire CEUs for a profession that has failed to give them employment.)

Most land survey courses in our colleges are housed in Schools of Engineering. This is inappropriate because the work of a boundary surveyor more reflects that of an attorney than an engineer. In fact, our best boundary work happens when there are no numbers (as when we find all four corner monuments). Try to get an engineer to put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Required Four Year Degree in Land Surveying
One state’s attempt to implement this requirement, and it is typical, was to inaugurate a Land Survey School in their University, headed by a Doctor of Math. This doctor has no survey experience. He will not let the students use the instruments, yet he is the main instructor. (Such makes engineering professors look relevant.)

State Survey Boards
Most state boards which regulate surveyors are heavily dominated by engineers and thus are a repeat of the Cinderella story, without the happy ending. When I served on a committee to write exam questions I proposed that court cases (the heart and soul of boundary surveying) be included. The proposal was quashed by, guess who, an engineer from the board.

Title And Home Mortgage Companies
The practice of showing property corner monuments to the bank and buyer has been long supplanted by office genera
ted GIS type maps "proving" that there are no conflicts with property lines. Just as the housing industry injured itself and the American economy by improper loan practices, so the same agencies have pocketed the survey fees and placed homeowners’ properties at great risk by the resulting neglect of corner monuments.

Professional Magazines And Readers
Jeff Lucas and Landon Blake’s articles on boundary surveys are the lonely petunias buried by endless articles on GIS, AutoCAD, scanners, natural disasters, etc. (American Surveyor excepted.)

But the mother of all these problems, and she spreads her shadow and fragrance over all of the Public Land Survey States, is the BLM. From 1880 to 1910, as a spritely mistress in the form of the GLO Commissioner, she had a non-love affair with the Surveyor General. The Surveyor General designed to survey public land quickly and inexpensively, relying upon the fundamental law of original corners to smooth over the many irregularities of his surveys3. She fused and fumed in her annul Commissioner Reports about her mate’s inaccuracies, promoted the practice of double corners and proposed that all U.S. Deputy Surveyors be fired and the Surveyor General neutered4. Too late! She was already pregnant! She was already pregnant with the idea that she should dispose of the contract system and hire employees to perform the same work.

The nature of the spat was made evident when, after the Civil Appropriations Act of June 25, 1910, the Commissioner gave birth, not to surveyors, but to "Cadastral Engineers"5. In the mid 1970’s BLM tried to legitimize her children by giving them her husband’s name, "Surveyor" and in 2009 changing their evidence standard from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to "substantial." But, because mother BLM ignored the court’s standard of accepting any evidence, the adoption didn’t take.6

In the PLSS states, every misconception, every bad practice, all arrogance over the courts by private surveyors has its lineage in the actions of the GLO and BLM. When a private surveyor ignores an ancient four-way fence corner and sets his proportionate monument 25 feet into Rancher Jones’ cow pasture, without ever talking to the neighbors, he is only following the example of his mother. When BLM rejects 100 year old stones, as in IBLA 388, what else can we expect from the private surveyor?

In 1947, eight years before his death, Einstein wrote to a friend that he could not seriously believe in quantum mechanics because, "physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance."

To paraphrase this quote; "A missing property corner should be replaced by reliance upon nearby evidence, free from spooky actions at a distance."

Whatever BLM’s justifications, they have certainly not been Einsteinium in their judgment.

The Judicial Department
There is only one constant star in our future, and it is the same as that which was there from the beginning: Land boundary disputes are the purview of the courts. Everything else has been a great disappointment.

In the summer of 2006 the Oregon Appellant Court, in Dykes vs. Arnold, turned the survey world up-side-down. This case has since been recognized as persuasive in courts all over our nation. However, 90% of the survey profession has still to catch on that henceforth original corners and local control (evidence) must prevail over spooky actions at a distance (proportioning).

In a metaphor, it is as though the US Supreme Court had decreed that henceforth "judicial precedence" shall be paramount in legal determinations and judgments, but six years later 90% of the judges and attorneys are still using chicken bones, goat entrails and trial by drowning.

It is apparent that surveyors will not advance until we separate our profession from that of the engineers. Perhaps we need a self-regulated "Bar", such as used by attorneys. We must have the courage to acknowledge that our profession of land boundary surveyors was debauched by engineers in 1910 and has struggled with legitimacy ever since. To paraphrase Einstein again, "The more we strive to improve the Land Boundary Survey Profession with Engineers mated with Departments of Administration, the sillier it looks"7

Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.8"

The Einstein quotes are from the book Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice.
1. "Even the scholars in various lands have been acting as if their brains had been amputated." Albert Einstein to Romain Rolland, March 22 1915.
2. "Coordinates for Legal Descriptions", and, "BLM telling private surveyors that BLM can declare a corner `administrative’ and move it", are examples.
3. Public Land Surveys, History, Instruction &Methods, by Lowell O. Stewart, 1935; a no-holds-barred account of the history of the General Land Office. Pages 40-58, 63-64.
4. A. Ibid pages 64-71. B. A History of the Rectangular Survey System by Albert White, pages 161, 162, 170-172 & 184. C. Running Line, Recollections of Surveyors, by BLM, 1991, page 36, D. Surveys and Surveyors of the Public Domain, by Lola Cazier, 1978, page 161.
5. Public Land Surveys…., pages 33, 57, 118, and 139.
6. See Clark on Surveying & Boundaries, 7th Edition § 12.16, 14.21, 15.01, 15.03; Newfound Management v. Sewer, 885 F.Supp. 727, 747, 748 (U.S. Dist. 1995).
7. The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks." Albert Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, 5-20-12.
8. This quote is probably from Albert Einstein.

Author’s note: I mishandled the IBLA nomenclature:
IBLA 388 should be 180 IBLA 388.
IBLA 252/260 should be Longview Fiber vs. U.S. (1996)135 IBLA pages 170-186.

In 1970, in a roomful of USFS new hires, Chad’s was the only hand raised in answer to the question, "Who can read a vernier?" This was his first realization of the benefits of education; Chemistry 101 had just made him an instant Instrument man and changed his major and life. In 1974 Chad graduated from one of the earliest accredited Land Survey programs in the United States, Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. After working in Alaska for BLM, the State of Alaska and on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipe Line, he received his first license. In 1986 he and his wife formed Erickson Land Surveys. In 1994 they chose to perform their work exclusively in boundary surveys. In 1997, while addressing recovered county survey stones in the Kamiah, Idaho area, Chad became aware of the disconnect between college training and correct surveying. Pained with the realization that his earliest surveys were fraught with errors because of ignorance of legal precedence, Chad now states, "If not for Jeff Lucas and Dykes vs. Arnold I would still be laboring in ignorance." Chad is ending his career with three survey licenses and the realization that survey education and practice must be coordinated and improved.

A 748Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE